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Michael Pitfield attends a news conference in Ottawa, Ont. in 1982.Peter Bregg/The Canadian Press

For Michael Pitfield, the good fortune of his public life was that he and Pierre Trudeau became close friends and intellectual allies long before the future prime minister entered politics.

They advanced almost in lockstep, Mr. Trudeau to 24 Sussex Drive, Mr. Pitfield to the most powerful bureaucratic offices in the land. Mr. Pitfield was assured a prime minister who shared his passion for national unity and both a fascination with the machinery of government and the challenge of making it more efficient. And Mr. Trudeau was assured of a friend and adviser whose loyalty was absolute.

The result of their friendship was that for most of the Trudeau years Mr. Pitfield, although never elected to public office, was probably the second most powerful man in Ottawa. He ruled the government's mandarins and, after the prime minister, his was the most influential voice in shaping public policy.

But of course such friendships can sometimes be an albatross, as Mr. Pitfield discovered when his friend Mr. Trudeau fell out of favour with the Canadian voters. As Mr. Trudeau fell, so too fell his friend.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced late Thursday the death of former senator Michael Pitfield, 80, after a long and devastating struggle with Parkinson's disease.

In his statement, the Prime Minister recognized the key role that Mr. Pitfield played in the patriation of the Constitution and the establishment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and also noted their long-standing relationship.

"On a personal level, I will remember Michael as a family friend, who was especially dear to my father and our family."

Born June 18, 1937, Peter Michael Pitfield was raised in Montreal's privileged and powerful Square Mile. As a boy he was awkward and gangly and astonishingly bright. He enrolled in St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., at the age of 14 because no other institution would take a student so young. Then, after a brief and unhappy stay at West Point he attended McGill University, graduating with a law degree.

Ironically, although he was later closely identified with Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals, Mr. Pitfield's first taste of public life came at the age of 22 when he went to Ottawa to work as an aide to E. Davie Fulton, Conservative John Diefenbaker's justice minister. A fellow Fulton aide was Marc Lalonde, another Montrealer who would also become a bastion of future Liberal governments.

In the course of the next nine years, the young Mr. Pitfield had a crash course into the people and offices of power and influence. He was executive director of the Royal Commission on Publications under the sparkling Senator Grattan O'Leary, speech writer for Governor-General Georges Vanier, an officer in the Privy Council under Robert Bryce and an aide in the prime minister's office under Lester Pearson.

The friendship of Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Pitfield began in the early 1960s, in the early years of Quebec's Quiet Revolution, when they found they shared a vision of what Canada should be and what Quebec's place in Canada should be.

Their friendship and political alliance was sealed in the early weeks of 1968 when it was Mr. Pitfield, supported by Marc Lalonde, who, in a two-hour late-night meeting of intensely reasoned argument, persuaded the apparently reluctant Mr. Trudeau to seek the leadership of the Liberal Party.

For the next 16 years, until Mr. Trudeau finally retired, Mr. Pitfield would be at the centre of the inner circle of advisers whose power and influence was resented by bureaucrats and politicians alike, although it was only in 1975 that he was promoted to the twin top posts of secretary to the cabinet and Clerk of the Privy Council.

Mr. Pitfield at first resisted the promotion. Those were jobs traditionally reserved for public servants who were much older and much more senior. In the end the veteran Gordon Robertson was shunted sideways to become Secretary for Federal-Provincial relations. In addition, Mr. Robertson continued to be responsible for advising the prime minister on senior government appointments.

So singular was the move that Mr. Trudeau had to go to Parliament for approval of a second cabinet secretary. What was never acknowledged was whether that delicate shuffle was to salve Mr. Robertson's pride or to calm the wounded egos of the legions of mandarins who bitterly resented Mr. Pitfield's influence and who believed that the job should have gone to a more senior career bureaucrat.

Beyond the scars of basic jealousy, there were other bruises that Mr. Pitfield left in his wake. Those who were his allies and admirers were absolute in their devotion and affection, but there were others excluded from the inner circle. It was in recognition of those on the outside that Richard Gwyn wrote in his book The Northern Magus: Trudeau and Canada, "Beyond a doubt Pitfield is the most adept, and most ferocious, bureaucratic infighter in Ottawa."

In 1979, when Canada's voters rejected the Trudeau Liberals and handed power to a minority Conservative government, it fell to Mr. Pitfield to brief prime minister-elect Joe Clark on the challenges facing his new government. To their apparent surprise the new prime minister and his advisers later acknowledged that the briefing had been totally correct, indeed brilliant.

But in a matter of days Mr. Pitfield was gone. He was, it was explained, too close to Pierre Trudeau and too close to the Liberal Party. Naively, perhaps, Mr. Pitfield was shocked that he should be seen as partisan. When he reported to his privy council staff on his dismissal he broke down in tears.

That was the albatross. However, as The Globe and Mail's Michael Valpy later wrote: "Pitfield is not a Liberal, a Conservative or a New Democrat. He is Pitfield, with his own ideas of what to do to make the country work, and what the country needs to survive." To those who knew him that seemed a reasonable judgment, but not everyone agreed.

Mr. Pitfield's consolation was an appointment to Harvard University to teach Canadian studies. One year and one election later he was again back in Ottawa as Clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to Pierre Trudeau's new cabinet. Mr. Trudeau had made it a condition of his return to politics that Mr. Pitfield return also.

The return of Mr. Pitfield meant that Mr. Trudeau met a wave of criticism for isolating himself in the company of only those who agreed with him. The prime minister had a ready and sometimes ill-tempered response. There was any number of people in the country who disagreed with him about almost everything, he snapped. Why should there not be a few people around him like Mr. Pitfield who agreed with him?

In retrospect there has never been any doubt about Mr. Pitfield's role as a source of comfort and support for the prime minister. What is more difficult to judge is his legacy as an innovative public servant.

From the time of Mr. Trudeau's arrival in power in 1968, much of the focus of the prime minister and advisers like Mr. Pitfield was on the management of government. It seemed at times close to an obsession. This was partly Mr. Trudeau's personal mindset, partly a rebellion against the casual and almost chaotic style of the Lester Pearson years, with uncontrolled spending commitments and uncontrolled ministers.

One of the bold innovations credited to Mr. Pitfield and others in the Privy Council office was the expenditure-management process, the so-called "envelope system."

Under the system, total government spending was set for each of 10 broad policy areas known as envelopes. Ministers on the cabinet committee responsible for each of those envelopes could juggle spending for programs within their envelope but could not spend beyond the limit set for their envelope. It meant that ministers had to make hard choices that could not be appealed to the prime minister.

To the surprise of everyone, Joe Clark kept the envelope system during his 1979 minority government, although many of his ministers regarded it as a dastardly Liberal innovation. The second surprise was that Liberal John Turner shut down the envelope system during his few months as prime minister after Mr. Trudeau's retirement.

Mr. Turner had always chafed under the restrictions of the cabinet committee system that limited the authority of individual ministers. His benchmark was the Pearson style of leadership, when strong ministers were allowed to run their own show. But Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Pitfield made sure there were no rebellious strong men in any Trudeau cabinet.

Even someone as loyal as Gordon Smith, a senior veteran of the Privy Council Office, admits that he is not sure whether all of Mr. Pitfield's innovations were successful. They were, he said, "probably too hopeful by half."

"He really believed the world was a rational place. I think that's what he liked about Trudeau, that the guy was so smart. Michael was supremely rational but he was dealing with an environment that was not supremely rational."

Much the same judgment came from the late Frank Howard, himself a former bureaucrat who, as a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen made a specialty of writing about the bureaucracy: "There was a certain naiveté. Pitfield had more faith in process than I thought was realistic."

Robert Rabinovitch, another graduate of the Pitfield years at the PCO and a former president of the CBC, similarly noted the determination of both Mr. Pitfield and Mr. Trudeau to make the government's policy process more rational. That search for a new and better system was a constantly recurring theme in the Trudeau government.

Mr. Rabinovitch also acknowledged that ministers in the Trudeau cabinet were frustrated by the constrictions of operating within the confines of a cabinet committee system that severely limited individual initiative.

"Mr. Trudeau and Michael both understood that they had to have key people in key places – but then Michael wanted to rein them in."

However much Mr. Pitfield shared Mr. Trudeau's ideas and attitudes, those who knew them insisted there were clear and recognized limits to their relationship.

Later, top bureaucrats in Brian Mulroney's Conservative government and then in Jean Chrétien's Liberal government seemed too easily to cross the line between adviser and cheerleader. One former senior bureaucrat recalled that Paul Tellier, supposedly the scrupulously neutral Clerk of the Privy Council, actually led applause for Mr. Mulroney during a cabinet meeting. "Michael would never have done that."

A year after he left the public service, in a thoughtful speech at Queen's University, Mr. Pitfield set out his ideas on the delicate and uncertain relationship between bureaucrats and those in power. For public servants he described a dual and conflicting role.

One role was "to protect the ultimate authority of the politician in office and to support the government in power." The other is to constrain the power of government "to ensure that it is used only for the purposes for which it is given."

Interestingly, Mr. Pitfield also pointed to what he called a serious danger, "namely that the bureaucracy, forsaking its function as a constraint on the power of the parties in office, will make common cause with them."

Set out thus, Mr. Pitfield seemed to have set the scene for one of those three-hour monologues which were occasionally the reward of those who sought him out and found him in a mood to talk – and it was always a flood of ideas wandering in obtuse but intriguing circles through history and philosophy, government and politics.

But instead he offered a beguilingly simple resolution in a dozen words that he might have regarded an appropriate epitaph. In the final analysis, he said, "the role of public servants is surely to maintain stability and order."